A heroic story from a remote town in Japan post Tsunami

Recently 8 students from IIT Bombay visited Japan as part of a trip sponsored by the Japanese government trip to better understand the situation in Japan post the March 2011 Earthquake and tsunami that devastated Japan and left more than 15,000 dead. During the course of their stay they met an individual that inspired the writer, Ashish Sapre, to share this individual’s heroic deeds.

Onagawa, a small quiet town in the Miyagi prefecture of Japan, some 350 kms north of Tokyo, was the centre of the local fishing industry till a tsunami struck it on 11th March 2011. A subsea earthquake of Richter scale magnitude 9 struck at 2:45PM and within the next 50-60 minutes the Japanese sea coast was facing a massive tsunami attack. These tsunami waves were so destructive that they rose as high as 40meters at some places and travelled inland up to 10 kms. What was left post this havoc were washed away homes, mountains of debris, missing people, either dead or lost and broken hearts.

A tsunami wave approximately the height of a 5 storey building travelled a kilometre inland and struck the beautiful fishing town of Onagawa. With all the localities being completely wrecked and having lost about a tenth of its population, the town of Ongawa will never be the same. Onagawa also has a nuclear power plant. But, thankfully it did not have any problems unlike a similar nuclear plant at Fukushima, another town nearby, which was quite devastated by the tsunami.

They say that in the hour of darkness someone brings a ray of hope and life revives, smiling back at you again. For this town, the torch bearer was one of its own men, Mr. Masaki Takahashi, CEO of local fish-cake maker company Takamasa & Co. Ltd.

He lost his grandfather in the tsunami. There was no immediate help from the government because of the scale of this disaster. He immediately decided to open the inventory of his company’s fish-cakes and water to local people. For a full week they survived only on fish-cake and water, just one fish-cake per person for an entire day along with 200ml of water. Soon, he decided to start his factory again, because cakes were needed to feed the people. So just after 8 days of tsunami, on 19th March 2011 he started the production again. All the fish cakes were distributed to local people, at no cost. Government help arrived by early April, but only in the form of pastries which are not a staple food for Japanese people. By this time around 200,000 fish-cakes were distributed by Takahashi. He also allowed rival companies to use the remaining production lines of his factory (free of cost) to manufacture and distribute fish-cakes to the locals.

Mr. Masaki Takahashi & Kizuna group team from India

As days passed and the situation improved, slowly many left the town to search for jobs or just to move away from the bad memories. By April 2011 only 6000 people were left in the town. Takahashi soon realised that this town will cease to exist as he knew it to be, if things continued the way they were heading. So he started working in the direction of a new factory which was opened in September 2011. This helped in creating jobs and stopping the outflow of people from town. Prior to the tsunami he had business contacts in Myanmar and Bangladesh. Now after the disaster when fish supply was reduced from Japan, these contacts came handy for fish supply.

It was not at all easy for Takahashi to rebuild his factory. He accumulated huge debts in this process and on the other hand his traditional market in Japan was reluctant to purchase from a disaster struck town, mainly due to fear of nuclear radiation in food. Although Onagawa nuclear plant was in perfect shape and nearest nuclear accident site in Fukushima was about 100 kms away, people were sceptical about using products from that area. Sensing and respecting the public mood, Takahashi introduced a mechanism complying with international standards to ensure that his products were radiation free. Japanese people were doubtful about the Japanese Govt. standards for radiation safety in food products, those days.

In the most difficult of times the best within us comes out. Takahashi proved it through his actions. He is not restricted to the fish-cake business anymore. He has been in talks with several travel agencies to introduce his beautiful town on the coast of the Pacific to tourists from all over the world. Takahashi is not only keen to retain his traditional business but also wants to explore newer opportunities to ensure that his town does not die out but instead smiles again. He wants to die in the same town where he grew up and where his grandfather took his last breath.

For more information about Mr.Takahashi, please view this video

Ashish Sapre
Doctoral Student,
Department of Civil Engineering,
IIT – Bombay
Mobile no: +91-9867654367